Researching the Most Prevalent Human Health Problem: An Interview with Jeffrey Mogil

PRIM&R is delighted to welcome Jeffrey S. Mogil, BSc, PhD, as one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming 2016 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Conference (IACUC16) to be hosted in Bellevue, WA, March 30-April 2. On the final day of the conference, Dr. Mogil will give an address titled, “Pain in Mice and Man: Ironic Adventures in Translation.”

In preparation for the conference, we connected with Dr. Mogil to discuss his work and what prompted his interest in the study of pain.

PRIM&R: How did you develop an interest in the field of pain research
Jeffrey Mogil (JM): It happened by accident; I wasn’t actually supposed to be a pain researcher. I was planning to go to graduate school to study reward and reinforcement, which was the first thing I ever did research on. A pain researcher (Dr. John Liebeskind at UCLA) got on the list somehow when I was applying for graduate schools. As I visited various programs when trying to make my decision, it was the pain researcher who impressed me the most, not just professionally, but also personally. Next thing you know, I’m doing pain research!

I like studying pain. It is something that people are interested in, not only from a clinical point of view but also from a philosophical point of view. It is important to understand in terms of treatment but also for our understanding of the way people are. It’s the most prevalent human health problem. In that sense, it’s probably the most important thing one could be studying. People might not think of it that way, since it doesn’t kill anyone directly, but if you think in terms of morbidity instead of mortality, there’s no more important priority in biomedicine.

PRIM&R: I had not necessarily thought about people going out and studying “pain” before. Even though pain is so prevalent, do you find that people are surprised to learn that this is what you study on a daily basis?
MG: People think in terms of diseases, not symptoms. There are more chronic pain sufferers than those who cope with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. But people don’t think of it that way because they all have different names. Migraine is one thing, arthritis is another, back pain is a third thing, and neck pain is a fourth thing. And you can think of them separately but they shouldn’t be thought of separately—they are all chronic pain syndromes. If you lump them all together, and add up all those people, suddenly you are talking about a quarter of the population.

PRIM&R: Can you talk about how your research in mice models transfers to human health, which you will be talking about at IACUC16?
MG: I’ve titled my talk “Ironic Adventures in Translation.” There are two ironies. First, on the end of pain where you would expect the translation [from mice to humans] would be the easiest (genetics, physiology, neurochemistry, etc.), the translation actually hasn’t worked very well. As pre-clinical researchers, we’ve been making choices that are useful to us, but not very good choices in terms of trying to get pre-clinical studies as close to the clinical studies as they can be.

The second irony is that we’ve been doing more and more studies of the social modulation of pain, and you might expect that the effects of social manipulations on pain wouldn’t translate at all from mice to humans. And yet so far they translate perfectly. We do the same experiments in mice as we do with students and the results are the same.

PRIM&R: How do you feel like what you do on a daily basis intersects with research ethics?
MG: My work has more relevance [to research ethics] than any work done by anyone I know in the pain field. The irony of it is not lost on me— I study how mice experience pain similar to how humans do. For example, mice grimace in pain as humans do. We’re doing experiments that show that mice are essentially little people in furry suits. The more you show that, the more that some might conclude that mice are inappropriate animals to be used in experiments. You can look at it that way, or you can say that’s why they are perfectly appropriate animal models. They would be inappropriate models if there were differences, because then we would be wasting our time. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of philosophy. Personally, I’m a utilitarian and so I believe the ends strongly justify the means. In this case, the “end” is ameliorating the most prevalent human health problem.

Interestingly, the paper of mine that has gotten the most attention from animal rights activists was a paper about facial expression and pain. The irony is that this new way of measuring pain in animals that was developed as a result of that research is now being used around the world in institutional vivaria. We used that scale to show that the doses of post-operative analgesics that were being used all around the world were far too low. The argument can be made that that research has paid for itself, and then some, in the amelioration of pain in mice, because now there is a way people can actually know if these mice need additional doses of analgesics.

Jeffrey S. Mogil, BSc, PhD, is the E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies, and the Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain at McGill University.